DENVER, Colo. — The 11th annual Beltania Retreat, set to be hosted May 17-20, 2018, will differ from the previous ten Beltania gatherings. In the past, Beltania had a dual identity, as a music festival and a Pagan gathering. It will now have one identity – a retreat for deep spiritual work.Over the years, Beltania has grown from a one-day event to a four-day event. It draws a relatively even number of males and females, shared Beltania’s executive director Joy Burton. People of Color make up about 10 percent of attendees, and another 20 to 25 percent of attendees identify as LGBTA+. About 2 to 3 percent of attendees do not identify as male or female, she noted. Children and youth make up between 10 to 15 percent of attendees.
Several key factors have driven the organizers to move the event toward a retreat, Burton told The Wild Hunt in an interview. These factors can be roughly grouped into four categories. First, the all-volunteer staff was finding it increasingly difficult to manage the gathering. It was becoming unsustainable. Secondly, Colorado weather in May is very unpredictable, making outdoor events challenging. Thirdly, a non-spiritual party atmosphere was developing, which threatened safety. Fourthly, staff and participants wanted to engage in that deeper religious work.
According to Burton past attendance has ranged from 400 to 500. The staff has now capped attendance at 250.
Burton said attendees had complained that too many things were happening at once. They felt rushed. Trying to accommodate everyone was beginning to overwhelm the all-volunteer staff.
Organizers have now limited the number of events that can occur at the same time to no more than three.
Burton estimated that, in the past, she had spent 500 hour per year working without pay on Beltania, roughly 24 percent of a full time job. She is also raising three children and working.
“My spiritual journey has led me to seek greater balance, to value my time and gifts, to have healthy boundaries, and not to give more than I can afford.”
Burton continued, “It’s been quite a challenge for me personally to come to the place where I can be OK with not making everyone happy.”
The event site is hilly, but not mountainous. It lies 7,000 feet above sea level. This makes for wild weather, even in May. Burton said, “One day it could be 10 degrees and the next 90 degrees. It could snow, hail, or have 50-mile per hour winds.”
While organizers and attendees value the outdoor experience, the staff has to manage this unpredictability. They cannot move some of the outdoor activities, such as sweat lodges, indoors if bad weather should hit.
In some cases, there were attendees, who failed to bring clothes for cold weather. When eight inches of snow fell one year, the staff had to call an ambulance to take care of someone with hypothermia.
Under the new rules, every outdoor location will have an indoor backup location. Tents do not fare well in severe weather. Staff has now reduced the number of spaces available for tent camping. While some tent space will still be available, most lodging will be in cabins or yurts.
A growing party atmosphere
Burton described a growing problem: “The party atmosphere was starting to grow. We had areas that were off-limits to kids.”
While Beltania has had an expectation of sobriety at all events, that was starting to change. Burton described this change: “Over time, some people were not maintaining sobriety at rituals, workshops, and, especially, at late night drum circles. It also became evident that use of illegal drugs was escalating.”
She noted that some attendees “were just hanging out getting drunk and high.” The new rules require a clean and sober environment throughout Beltania. This retreat does allow medical marijuana.
The excessive use of drugs and alcohol raises serious safety issues. In general, Burton questioned these safety issues at all Pagan gatherings.
She related a personal experience that happened years ago at an unnamed U.S. Pagan gathering. “I went arm-in-arm with my husband to a drum circle. Somebody who was drunk came up to me and grabbed my breast, without asking. I felt assaulted.”
Burton said that she believes that this happens over and over again at Pagan festivals throughout the US. She stressed the importance of developing consent culture.
According to Burton, no sexual assaults have occurred at Beltania. One year, staff did have to remove two people from festival, and the two were barred them from returning. This issue involved in that case, she said, was “sexually inappropriate behavior towards underage” attendees.
Deeper spiritual work
As she noted, the staff and attendees wanted to experience a deeper level of spiritual and religious work. One way that they will do that is through the incorporation of structured drum circles.
Generally, drum circles can be rather free form. To work on a deeper spiritual level, Beltania will now host these structured drum circles, called Alchemical Drum Circles, which have a set time and space in order to deepen the experience.
The defined beginning and ending ceremonies structure the time. Flags or other markers structure the space into a series of concentric circles. Each circle contains specific activities. The innermost circle contains dancing and more intense activity. As the circles move outward, the intensity of the activity decreases.
Not everything is changing at the popular Colorado event. The 11th Beltania will still have the Maypole dance and a labyrinth walk. Selena Fox will be leading workshops and rituals. Jhenah Telyndru and Michael Heartsong will also be there leading their workshops.
Burton described the upcoming changes as being pro-active before significant problems occurred. She has three criteria for judging the success of these changes. First, the event would have to align with Beltania’s mission. Second, Beltania would have to be safe. Third, the most vulnerable community members would have to feel welcomed.